State dependent memory. One of those things you learn about in your first encounters with psychology, along with Phineas Gage and Skinner’s rats. We remember things better when we are in the same state as when we learned them.
Of course we do. Walking past a road where we lived years ago. The smell of an old love’s perfume on a crowded street. They catapult us back.
And so with learning: you learn the thing in a state close to how you’ll need to remember it. Make associations: this pen, that song. When you walk out of a room and forget what you were looking for, all you need to do is walk back in to remember.
It’s less useful when it comes to emotions.
When I’m happy, I forget what sadness feels like. I know it exists. Can even bring it up, with a little effort. But it is not what comes unbidden.
And when unhappy- when we most need to be reminded that this is not all there is- it’s all we can remember. Our disappointments shine brightly, three dimensional. Joy hides. We’ve walked out of the room and left our meaning behind.
It still exists. It does. But in a lifetime of memories, we live in those closest to us. Not in time. But in tone. Disappointment takes us to grief, to heartbreak, to illness. Meaning, love and joy aren’t here. They’re in another room. Outside the window.
You can bring them up. We can, I can.
But it’s difficult. Memories of joy and awareness of meaning don’t come by unbidden. It takes effort to reach them. You have to go looking. Drag yourself through the brambles, somehow find faith that there is something on the other side. For a little while, then, you can sit in a clearing. Feel some warmth between the shadows.
The shadows come back, though. It’s easy to forget that from the clearing. Because- remember- when we are in the sun, we remember sun. In the night, darkness. So we wake from our sleep in a ray of light and the shadows grow back and again, again we must find some way to believe that we can hack our way through them, worm our way out to somewhere we can breathe.
We’re not good at talking about this, are we? Our world is one of success! Productivity! Progress! Competition! Winning! We are pitted, one against the other. You’ve got to be a winner, because if you’re not? You’re.. you’re the other one. The one who couldn’t stay the course.
So our narrative this this: we can talk about chemical imbalances. Illnesses that require medication. A single story where something is off kilter in our brains. And we discover what that is- sometimes through long trials and many errors- we discover how to treat it, and in the end we emerge victorious. We have progressed. We have won. The enemy may have been inside our head, but it was not us. And oh, how we must call it an enemy. Because how can you win, if something else can’t lose?
And if we lose, it is a glorious defeat. We have fallen in a battle fought until the end. There is no dishonour in such a loss. Even when we die in our beds- or just spend months unable to leave them- we hold on to this metaphor. We are fighters. We are strong.
These are the stories we are permitted to tell. An imbalance that comes from nowhere, striking like lightning. Or a foe we fight against all odds.
Those stories are sometimes true. But I’m tired of them.
Lightning doesn’t strike at random. Don’t want to get struck by lightning? Don’t be the tallest thing in the field. And enemies are not forces of nature. There isn’t an evil out there that the armies of good must vanquish over and over again.
There’s just us. Complicated, confused, making it up as we go along: us.
I wish we could talk about sadness without making it weakness. Or talk about weakness without making it shame. I wish we didn’t feel like we had to live up to a one-way narrative about success.
Maybe what we need is something more like this: the landscapes of our selves are vast, and contain more than we can ever imagine in a single moment. So sometimes we live in the forest. Sometimes we live in the open air. Sometimes we are on the edge of one, looking into the other. And while the trees that are our memories of other pain can block out the sunshine, they can also shelter us from the worst of the rain.
State dependent memory. We remember things better when we are in the same state as when we learned them. We have been in this forest before. It has been dark and it has felt like there was no way out. And yet, here we are again. Having left and returned, left and returned.
Maybe part of it is this: the last time we were here, we found a way out. We made a clearing that lasted a little longer before the sky closed up again. The trees started to grow a little further apart. And one say we woke up in the light. Maybe part of returning is seeing the trails that we left behind, the last time this was our home.
Or maybe it is just this: this is part of who you are. The landscapes of our selves are vast and we have no choice but to live through all of them. It is you. Learn it.
Maybe build a treehouse.
First published here